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History repeats itself: On Trump, neighborliness and declining civil culture

Updated: Mar 15, 2019


Note: Originally published in the January 2017 issues of the Washington Park Profile and Life on Capitol Hill. I received irate responses from reader on both sides from this one, but, frankly, the responses from those opposing Trump were the most disheartening. We who oppose what he stands for have to be more broad minded than ever before.

Welcome to the new year. And to a new world. Trump’s in power, and half the electorate is giddy with dreams of a restored Republican order. The other half is wondering just how quickly four years can pass…

But, underneath everything, I bet even the “winners” feel the election was a shock. That’s what this current moment is all about: shock, hopefully a little pause and some reflection. Maybe a little reflection about your neighbors…

Do you know your neighbor—really know them? If you think you do, how well? Do you care to know them? That’s what I want to know. I also want to know to what lengths you think they would go to see realized the world they envision. And, be honest with yourself: how far would you go?

Let’s leave off those questions for a moment. I want to highlight the word of the column: empathy. Let me explain.

I feel for all parties involved this particular election’s outcome was the result of hubris. Don’t know what that is? I bet most Americans without a smartphone are in the same boat. I only learned the term because I had to teach it.

I used to be a teacher, and I taught all levels of school, from middle to university. For a time, I taught at an excessively posh private school in St. Louis, and I taught little future-leader freshmen about hubris, otherwise known as excessive pride.

We read numerous books to illustrate this simple human flaw. Lord of the Flies, Things Fall Apart… The most poignant for its simplicity, though, was Sophocles’ Antigone.

The plot is simple: a city by the name of Thebes has been besieged by a once-loyal-soldier-turned-rebel named Polynices. Creon, the city’s defending general, has effected a victory. Polynices lies dead. Interestingly, so does his brother Eteocles. Twist: Eteocles died defending the city.


Sebastian Louis Guillaume Norblin's Antigone Giving Burial to her Brother Polynices, 1825.

Creon has decreed Eteocles be given a full ceremonial burial while Polynices be left to rot.

Seems cut and dry, right? I think there are many among us who could see our way to siding with Creon’s logic, especially if we had lost loved ones in the conflict.

Oh. I should add … anyone trying to bury Polynices will be stoned to death.

Enter Antigone. Antigone, and her sister Ismene, are sisters to both Eteocles and Polynices. (Interesting sidebar: all four are children of the famed Oedipus, the cursed individual who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother. Another story for another time.)

Stay with me. This all has a point. Promise.

Anyway. Antigone has it in mind to bury Polynices. In fact, that’s ALL she has in mind, and she’s not willing to compromise. Family comes first; what’s done is done. Let’s all honor all the dead so as to let all souls pass to the next world prepared for whatever challenges lie there. A good burial ensures a good transition to the next world. Let’s have some grace.

Right?

Generally speaking, I would argue honoring and defending those who cannot defend themselves, that’s good behavior, and good behavior, practiced on the regular, that makes for a good society.

Anyway, back to the story. It gets complicated: Creon’s son is betrothed to Antigone, and Antigone is stubborn to the end. Things aren’t looking good. And, I bet you can figure the outcome. (Creon won’t budge either.) There’s an imprisonment, lots of blood…

Let’s turn the camera to ourselves now and to some narratives that seem popular of late.


Hate comes home: even Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood wasn't spared in the wake

of the inauguration. Here's the full story. Photo by J. L. Schultheis Price.

Here’s one: some feel America is literally and spiritually besieged, and that party seems to also believe the time has come for a strong leader to cut the crap and do the things to our attackers that need to be done to ensure future prosperity and glory.

Here’s another: principles before passion. Good, levelheaded planning with a hefty dose of empathy can lead us all up from dark times and can continue to carry all Americans forward into this new world economy which, let’s be frank, is scaring quite a few folks. Sure, cartographic, digital and sexual boundaries all seem porous, but maybe understanding is the path by which we can quell uncertainty and come together to be stronger in the face of change.

So, I go back to my question. How well do you know your neighbors? How firmly drawn is your line in the sand? That “your” is directed at you, Democrats, as much as it is at you, Republicans. And let’s be clear, we know which party is Antigone and which is Creon. So, I ask you: is it worth dying for? And I ask you: once we go that far, is the society left in the wake worth living in?

The Greeks were once strong. So were the Romans. So were a host of other civilizations… They were all so sure of their power, too, interestingly enough. Sure of their rightness.

Don’t get me wrong. In my world, Trump is abhorrent. I still have not figured out how to work with those who voted for him while trying to believe they do not stand for all he espouses.

So, I return to hubris. With how much force do you believe sanctity of your worldview? Do you live without doubt? What’s the outcome if you hold principle above connection? Ideal above community?

Just wondering. Happy new year.

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